SHORT STORY: COVID -192 - A Curious Exploration of Fear and the Singularity (2200AD)
SHORT STORY: COVID -192 - A Curious Exploration of Fear and the Singularity (2200AD)
It started with a cough, one chesty crack into my palm. The warmth of blood, and the metallic taste in my mouth. The only other time I remember running so fast to the toilet was when I first woke up with the morning sickness. That was many years ago now, nine to be exact. I ran, fast before anyone else could see me - I couldn’t risk it. Not with Tom, and certainly not with Junior. For Tom it was the fear of what I knew he would have to do, for Junior, it was about the risk of infecting him.
I closed the toilet door and then I coughed again, and then again. Each time I buried my mouth, covering it with a face towel to muffle the sounds that might have as well been an alarm. The night was quite, the moon outside still in the sky like it had been stuck on it with glue. There were no stars and the clouds did not move. I had jumped out of bed too fast to check the time but if I was to take a guess, I could have put it somewhere a few hours past midnight.
Tom wasn’t in the bed when I left, and it wasn’t the first or hundredth time I was waking to him gone. His job was like that, he was a fireman. Not like the old firemen now only referred to as the quenchers. He was a modern fireman, a burner. And he was one of the best at it too. A sort of people’s hero, though a villain to many that had been unfortunate enough to have him in their home. As I looked at the bloodstained towel in the bright moonlight, I imagined him standing over me with his propane tank and the hose that was connected to it. I imagined him pulling the trigger, the flame thrower spitting the only thing it could - making my skin melting on the very bones beneath them. He would do it with teary eyes and trembling hands, but I knew he would do it regardless. It was his duty, his training, his oath. No! A knock sounded at the door. I moved my body to lean on it with my shoulders. “Hey Junior, I’m just cleaning up here. Give me a minute.” “What are you cleaning so late?” the smart mouth asked. “Have you ever had a period?” I had never been so grateful for owning a uterus that left me in so much pain every month. “Oh…” He was as confused as he was embarrassed. “Okay, I thought I heard something, or someone running.” “Well, your father insists on white sheets so…, just go back to sleep. I’ll carry on this conversation with the daughter I never had in my head.” “That’s just sexist mother.” I listened to his steps move away and then fade into silence. My sigh of relief might have as well been a roar of thunder. But the ease it brought with it was gone as soon as it had arrived. For one thing, this towel had to go. And it wasn’t a matter of stashing it somewhere like an old shoebox. Boxer would sniff it out the moment he was back with Tom. In my mind’s eye I could see the dog barking from the door and moving its muzzled nose everywhere till it arrived at the box. Genetic engineering couldn’t save us from the virus, but it could breed dogs with super-smelling abilities. A waste of science if you ask me, but that was the least of my worries at the moment.
I reached for the bottle of disinfecting bleach, blocked the bathroom sink and got to work immediately. When I was done and there was not a trace of blood or sputum to be found, I moved on to spray the place with the air cleaner, just in case something lingered. Now it was time to panic. I watched my chest heave in the mirror and my head pounded so hard it sent patches of blackness to obscure my sight. I had to grip the sink to keep my balance. A memory long buried was rearing its head.
I was six, maybe seven, or five - it was in the winter, or should I say harmattan. I woke to the smashing of our door, metal against wood sending splinters everywhere. Before I could understand what was going on, a man was lifting me out of my bed. He was dressed in all-yellow PVC material, face masked with a helmet like the ones astronauts wore in the old movies like Amragedon. Space travel suits had since gotten more sophisticated, but for a fireman charged with burning “the marked” as the sick were now called, this was more than enough. Before I was fully awake, he had pointed a thermometer at me and fired the red beam. The machine beeped once and he bundled me up immediately. “Mummy! Mummy!” My screams were in vain, but it was that or silence. As he lifted me onto his shoulder and out the house, I saw others like him. Each with propane tanks, the same dulled and unfeeling face looking through their helmets. The rest of the memory is blurred, more so because I believe the trauma is too much to hold in storage. Only in flashes - the woosh of the flame throwers, the yellow light of fire, the heat and the smell of smoke. Screaming, wailing, silence and the crackle of burning wood. It was how I lost my parents. Till date, I am unsure who caught it first and who gave it to who. But what does it matter? Death came for the both of them, swiftly and without mercy.
I calmed my breathing and opened up the cabinet on top of the sink. It was a library of plastic bottles with all manners of labels. I picked one and popped it open. The recommended dose for the immune boosters is a pill a week. I swallowed three on the spot and hoped no one had counted them. Hopefully by morning I would have come up with a plan to escape. No one I knew had escaped before. Not with the sniffers that roamed the streets and the thermal cameras that might have as well been watching us take a shit.
I made my way back to the bed where sleep was nowhere to be found. Perhaps it was time to plan. I thought about dosing on antipyretic medicine for my temperature, maybe stash some ice packs in my coat too. I would have to drown myself in perfume as well. The sniffer dogs like Boxer couldn’t do much if I wasn’t bleeding from a cut. Who merges shark DNA with dogs, sick geneticists that’s who. There was a rumour that somewhere outside of the District there was a community of nomads that lived with the marked. It was a society I couldn’t even begin to imagine, and they were referred to as Heaven - a name most hated by the Sigularity even if no one was sure about what it meant. Probably something from the old world lost to disaster.
Tom said these savages of Heaven did not understand that love was a quest in sacrifice. For every twenty-four hours a marked spent in the District, three more were marked - one at least sure to die within a week. The bravest called the firemen on themselves and the best did them the favour of being dead before they arrived. The pills the firemen took to dull their senses was not quite enough to blind them to the act of killing. Even if killing meant offering the marked a cyanide pill before proceeding to burning them along with the house they lived in to prevent further spreading. Some refused the pill and prefered to be burnt alive. He hated these ones the most.
Sure, some people survived the mark, but the odds were not good, compared to the risk anyways. The world had seen the first of this Coronavirus in 2020. A strain even primary school kids could identify by name and genetic structure of the RNA, COVID-19. It saw the first halting of civilisation on a global scale the modern world had seen. Markets crashed, many died, and then a cure was found. The mortality rate at less than 5% was a bearable loss even if it translated to ten million dead in the space of three years. When it was gone, the world was never quite the same again - until COVID 192 arrived, breaking it in a way it could never recover from.
I heard the front door creak open and feigned to be asleep as best I could, begging my body to hold off on coughing. The unmistakable stench of smoke followed him into the house and he headed straight for the bathroom. In there I imagined him taking off his gear and having a shower. I felt a spike in my heart as I imagined passing it to him. Perhaps I didn’t have till morning, perhaps I had only a few minutes before he was done scrubbing. There was no time to think, only time to act. I moved. First I took the antipyretics by the bedside drawer, and then straight to the freezer for the ice packs. Why had he come back so early? I thought I had at least till 5:00am in the morning. Fuck! “Hey babe.” “Hey babe.” I replied. “Can you pass me my towel, I left it on the chair.” I was already in my hooded tracksuit, standard antiviral surface material with a mask guard, pockets stuffed with ice, a cooler bag in my hand and running shoes on my feet. I found his towel, tossed it into the bathroom, and then I moved. When he comes out, I would not be there and he would sound the alarm - or maybe he wouldn’t. Either way, I would know soon enough. The hardest part was leaving without as much as a goodbye to Junior. He would get to school in the morning or whenever the authorities were okay with him leaving isolation and he would have to deal with the shame of his mother being a runner - a marked runner. There was no greater shame, no greater act of cowardice. My eyes welled with tears but the time for weeping would come.
I left from the backdoor because it did not creak, and it was linked to the kitchen allowing me to pack the cooling bag with tin foods. Now I was on the street, rows of street lights illuminating the road, the ever shining red light of the thermal cameras reminding me that it was watching. I felt like I was in a spy thriller and I was sure I would have preferred being in a comedy. I would have preferred anything but this. As I made my way to the end of the metal sheet paved street, I wondered if truly I was a coward. If it was selfish for me to save my own skin putting the entire District in danger. I also wondered what Tom would think of me. First before his pills wore off, and then after it. No time. I continued to walk.
My eyes swung from one lamppost to the other, and I wondered if I had already been picked up - a van full of firemen deployed to come and hunt me down. I needed to turn a corner and order a cab. On foot I was no better than a sitting duck. I turned the corner at the end of the road, and then I tapped on my watch to place the order.
FUCK! TOO LATE! THEY KNOW!
Tom must have said something, not even a single network bar on the device. Just a warning that I was to report myself immediately to the nearest fireman. The firemen had that power, I knew, I was married to one. Why didn’t I marry a doctor or even an geneticist - gosh, a builder felt like a better choice right now. But then I wouldn’t understand the system. I raised the hood on my tracksuit and placed the filtration mask over my nose to avoid the facial recognition scanners. Now, it was me against the system.
I thought of everybody I knew and who I could run to. Then I imagined what I would have done if someone had come to me in my current state. Harbouring a runner was a crime, a serious one at that. But there was also the issue of transmission. In this state, no one would touch me with a stick, not even Junior if he knew. The electronic billboard across the street switched from the SingulairtyRx ad for immune boosting pills to a wanted poster. My face was clear to see, along with my name, address, a watch frequency to tune if I was spotted, and a sound warning in red that I should be avoided. The headline was clear, “Marked Runner Alert”. I imagined this interrupting every television station and streaming broadcast. A month did not go by without me witnessing this at least once, only now it was my face on the screen.
I had no idea where I was going to go, but my legs begged me to keep moving. If I did not make it to a place of safety by the end of the night, the sun would bring with it the end of my life. That much I was sure of. The sound of a wheeled trolley pulled me out of my head. I jumped to find only a homeless man, his life in the trolley and a paranoid look in his eyes. He appeared to be muttering to himself as well. On the cardboard he used for what I imagined to be his plate number, I read. “There is life outside of the District, Heaven is real” It was a common sentiment with the destitute, this belief in life outside of the District. They were generally branded as loonies no different from the preachers that still spewed religious jargon and conspiracy theories at people, urging them to repent in the days of the apocalypse. Religious gatherings had long been prohibited as a non-essential activity and televangelism banned for spreading misinformation. I guess you could say religion was now a thing of the past living on only in the heads of crazies. Households were also limited to only one working partner to reduce the risk of exposure to the viral air. “Have you ever been to heaven? Have you seen the gates?” I had to ask, what other choice did I have. He looked to his left and then his right as if he worried someone else was listening in. “Have you been marked?” The red flash of the firetruck flashed from a distance. “Quick, get in there now!” I climbed into his trolley and he piled and padded what he could to hide my presence. From the confined space I was trapped in, I heard the firetruck zoom by, nausea gripping my stomach till my guts came spilling out of my mouth. He either didn’t notice or wasn’t bothered. He wheeled me on to a shadowed corner before stopping. “Give me your watch.’ I compiled without hesitation and he trashed it down the sewer before we moved on. I was still in the large trolley, a dirty blanket covering most of me.
When the blanket came off, I was relieved to be in the presence of fire under a bridge. As it were, there was a whole community of the homeless here, but now that I was one of them, I was beginning to question if this place was simply a den for men that couldn’t find any work and had to live off scraps. “What is this place?” “Welcome to outpost 23, one of the many divisions of Heaven.” He didn’t need to say much more. By the corner I spotted some cages, subitizing at least a count of six, maybe five. The cages were covered with transparent plastic drapes like you would find in meat shops and two were occupied with people. “Are you going to throw me in there?” “Only for a few days, to see if you will make it. We would be infusing you with some plasma as well to help your body generate the COVID-192 antibodies.” He called one of the other men and he came with a briefcase. Inside was cold, a drip bag with clear liquid I guessed to be blood plasma and a tube he would use for the infusion. “You can cure me? Why wouldn’t you take this to the Singularity? They’d pay you a fortune.” “They’d shoot me in the head.” I was silent in my confusion. “And what if I don’t make it?” “Why do you ask? You’d be dead, what does it matter to you?” The question needed to answer, he was right, I’d be dead. “No women here?” My eyes searched the place to no avail. “Homelessness is still largely a male issue, we send them straight to Heaven if they make it. Having women wheeling around trollies will set off alarm bells. Homeless men are not noticed in the way homeless women are, and the District prioritises women for housing.” I had only noticed that he was biting on a chew stick. “Why do you speak with me comfortably? Do you not fear the virus?” He pulled back his sleeve to expose a tattoo to me. It was the sign of the cross. “I have been resurrected. I cannot die again.” “But they said we could get reinfected.” “You must understand, the world is nothing like what it seems. All your life you have been living a dream carefully curated to ensure that you never awaken. I will tell you all about it, but first, let us do the needful.”
The other men, maybe five of them in total were now on their feet. One walked up to a cage and opened it. I was led to it and then put in it. The gate was locked behind me and the see through meat curtains were placed over. I watched them mount the plasma drip and then find a vein to lodge the tube. In a few days, I would be a survivor or I would be dead. The odds didn’t feel great, but it was that or dying immediately at the hands of firemen with flame throwers.
The days passed in a blur of agony. My temperature climbed so high I thought my eyes would melt, I coughed, I wheezed, and I sneezed. My flesh felt too heavy for my bones and my muscles ached like I had been beaten with a nightstick. The worst part was my stomach. I couldn’t hold anything down, it was out from one hole or the other shortly after going in. Most times when I vomited, the spasms would carry on for so long I thought my own stomach would spill out of my mouth as I wretched. On the sixth day, I began to feel closer to life and further from death. The cough had lost the stain of blood and food stayed down for at least two hours.
I was a skeleton of myself, the vague reflection on the plastic curtains showing eyes sucked into the sockets. I hadn’t showered for a single day since, but I was alive. I had also not asked anyone for their names. I didn’t want to make introductions with people that often watched me shit and vomit in this helpless state. For one thing, I knew I would never be able to pay them back. The man that had brought me seemed to play the role of carer and that included cleaning up after me and shoving my food into the cage. My excretions were always tossed into the metal drum and then burnt at night for heat and to kill the virus. If I was to take a guess, I would have said everyone here had been marked before. It was far too risky to be this close without immunity. Perhaps it was possible to be immune, maybe after this plasma transfusion. What else had the Singularity and the District kept from us? On the fourteenth day, I was let out.
There were no words to describe the feeling of a pair of free lungs, the drawing of a full breath. Even under this bridge that was largely a dumpster, air had never smelt so good, felt so good. “Thank you, all of you. Really, you guys are heroes.” They gave no reply to my gratitude and if it meant anything to them, they did not show it. “We… we need something from you.” “May I first ask, what is your name?” I asked the man that had saved my life. “My name is Twelve, and your name is forty-three.” I accepted my numerical name without protest and did not bother to dig anymore for his either. “You said that your husband is a fireman, yes?” “Yes?” I nodded, a nervous nod that I did not attempt to hide. “Well, we need you to go back to him.” If I was nervous before, I was panicking now. It really is ironic that I never thought about what I was going to do if I made it out alive. All I had thought about cooking in isolation was staying alive - for another second, another minute, another hour and another day. “If I return, they would take me. They say survivors are carriers. It’s too dangerous.” “It’s a lie!” The anger in his tone was real. Even if he spoke a lie, it was one he believed, truly believed. I could see the tensing of his jaw, his effort to control frustrated breaths. “Everything you think you know is a lie, a lie designed to keep you in fear. That is the real virus. Fear.” There was a long silence, and in it, I scanned the faces of the other men that stood around. Each was as serious as the other. These men might have worn tattered clothes with patches and stitches, but now that I was looking at them, it was obvious that they were more. “May I see it?” I asked. “See what?” He replied. “Your Heaven.” He sighed. “Oh yea of little faith.” he shook his head, “very well Thomas Forty-Three. I will show you.” “Who is Thomas?” They all smiled, “It’s a religious reference, lost knowledge now. Really big deal in the near past. Before the end of the world.” “The end of the world?” “Yes, the world has ended many times. Not in the manner you might think. It doesn’t end with the blackening of the sky in a rain of fire. It ends with the death of ways and the birth of newer ways. But do not mistake all advances for progress.” I felt my brows furrow and the lines on my face deepen. What was he talking about? “Perhaps it is better that you see for yourself.” He reached into his pocket and he retrieved what looked like a mini screen pad, except it wasn’t like any I had ever seen. He switched it on and a logo popped up, an apple, one with a bite missing from the side. “You make these in Heaven?” “No, it’s old world technology, before everything became owned by the Singularity.” “I don’t understand…” “There was a time when…” he paused, “I’ll just show you.”
He pushed a few icons on the screen and then a video began to play. I watched it all in silence, my slacked jaw near enough hitting the floor in awe of what I saw. First was a world vast and diverse in culture, language, food, architecture, it was unreal - a time before COVID - 192. It wasn’t all bread and butter, but it was free. There were no curfews, no thermal cameras, and no firemen, at least not like the ones we had now. There were religions too, strange symbols and carvings from every region of the planet. I knew little of any of it, but the transcending feeling was not lost on me. Oh and there was art, a lot of art. Books, films, paintings, music… so much stuff… and then came the first COVID, the strain 19.
It was the first time the modern world felt the wave of a global panic. There had been a few waves before this, plagues they called them - the pandemics of the old, of worlds before technology. This first COVID gave the world a chance. The options were simple, to relinquish the self-centred capital based framework of reality for a more communal society. The world rejected this. People died all around the globe, lungs torn by this wicked infection. Governments argued about stimulus packages and other such nonsense, like money wasn’t just speculated numbers in computer storage. As for the poorer regions of the world, it sends chills down my spine just to think about it. The infection led to deaths, deaths led to riots, riots led to more infections, more infections led to more deaths, and finally, martial law was in place - more deaths. Army bullets, mass killings in communities, outright class genocide. It all ended in tears; sorrow, tears and blood. Thankfully, or maybe not, the Singularity found a cure.
I sighed at the intermission, and then it carried on to show the reshaping of the world, a world that had lost over half of its population in some regions. Rumours of the virus being a deliberate act to curb an expanding population eating the planet alive was common, and the reaction of nations did little to mitigate this. It mattered little if it was true or not, the fear of loss was already there on the heels of that, the first world order was created. A single world state with a single currency broken down into districts. The religious refused to accept this. I cannot understand all of it, but there was talk about the mark of the beast and prophecies in a book referred to as Revelations. This was when religion became illegal in public and with it other forms of thoughts that opposed the one world government. Soon enough, homogeny was the order of the day - the Singularity was born. Through information dieting, censorship and other forms of psychological manipulation. A world had died, and a new one formed. The video was done. “But what about this new virus.” “Man made. If the Singular state filled the void of God to its faithful citizens, a system of fear was needed to fill the void of the devil. A version of hellfire if you may.” “What is this hellfire?” I asked. “A concept of fear in religion promised to the lot that lived outside of the laws of God.” “So if we don’t act in line, we will fall into hell by losing the grace of the state?” “Now you understand.” he pushed a button and the screen went blank. “So, will you help us?” I paused for a beat, “and what exactly is your mission, what do you hope to accomplish?” “To tell the world the truth, the truth that the only enemy is fear itself and they need not devote their lives to the Singularity for protection. They need not beg for medicine from the inventors of the ailment.” he swallowed, “I want to tell them that they can be free, that they are free.” “But what if there is danger in this freedom? We were taught in school that the first COVID ate through the planet because people would not stay off the streets even when ordered to.” “We need not trade security for freedom, we can have both freedom and safety. It is our right.” His voice was resolved in a way that told me that his life meant nothing to him if it was to be given to this cause. It was something I had never quite seen before, a human willing to die for an idea, an intangible thing. “Let me show you something.” he reached into his pocket and retrieved a stack of images printed on paper. “What are these?” I asked. “Photographs, it’s how they kept images before everything could fit into a screen. I suppose you’ve never seen a real book either.” “They say books are bad for trees and that is bad for the…” “I know, I know.” he handed me the stack. On the film-like object I caught glimpses of Heaven. The streets were paved in stone, plants grew and animals that were not sniffer dogs roamed free - chicken and goats. I turned to see more. The fashion was diverse, and people smiled in a way that glowed in their eyes. There was a sort of colour to how these people lived, a zest in their life. I didn’t know all about it, but more than anything, I wanted a part of it. I wanted in. “And you hope to turn the entire Singularity to this?” He nodded. “I will help you fight. But who exactly is the enemy?” “Fear, the enemy is fear itself.”